It’s been a stellar year for Canadian poetry, and I haven’t even been able to talk about everything yet (given my baby-distraction of the past year, and a couple of titles I haven’t even seen yet), so my usual ‘best of ten-or-so’ is slightly longer. And yes, this is my fourth annual list (see 2013 here; 2012 here; 2011 here), with my regular caveat that the misnomer ‘best of’ is simply a list of Canadian poetry titles over the past year that I think are worth seeking out and reading. A ‘worth repeating,’ more like.
My list this year includes: Brecken Hancock, Broom Broom (Coach House Books), Suzannah Showler, Failure to Thrive (ECW Press), Sina Queyras, M x T (Coach House Books), Karen Solie, The Living Option: Selected Poems (Bloodeaxe Books), bpNichol, bp :beginnings, ed. Stephen Cain (BookThug), Dennis Cooley, abecedarium (University of Alberta Press), Cecily Nicholson, From the Poplars (Talonbooks), Natalie Simpson, Thrum (Talonbooks), Renée Sarojini Saklikar, children of air india (Nightwood Editions), Nikki Reimer, Downverse (Talonbooks), Arleen Paré, Lake of Two Mountains (Brick Books), George Stanley, North of California St. (New Star Books), Nikki Sheppy, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka Press), nathan dueck, he’ll (Pedlar Press), Kate Hargreaves, Leak (BookThug), ryan fitzpatrick, Fortified Castles (Talonbooks), Lisa Robertson, Cinema of the Present (Coach House Books) and Alex Leslie, The Things I Heard About You (Nightwood Editions).
1. Brecken Hancock, Broom Broom
BEFORETIMES. Uranus culls his gilded camels and bathes in the Baikal, the Zaysan, the Lanao. He wades in low-lying plains, spas in every rain-filled meteor crater. Sixty-fourth parallel, March. Sunlight fires a salvo off his lover’s collarbone. Gaia’s slums hoard water, Asmat mud and patches of pubic forest. Her valleys are aqueducts feeding antechambers of lakes: caravans of bathtubs clawing overland talon by talon according to deep time, glacial wake, geochemistry. Lake Agassiz Basin, Morass hollow, calderas. Gathering my hair off the pillow, I rise from the spill on our sheets to bathe. Oceanus – Titan of the brutish Atlantic, master of Ketos and Kraken, conductor of sky to land. Half-man, half-serpent; horizon marks the fix. Biceps of accumulated cloud ceiling the sea. He’ll rip your ship apart for a violin. His tail’s a woman’s braid dropped deep. And over its mucus and muscled carbuncles, legions of mollusk princes ascend, knot by knot by octopus tapas – crabs’ pincers and half-spumed clams – through bergs of cloying oil slick, plagues of dross, black-booming purple and a drowned Cassiopeia of phosphor. Abyssss. Germs fermenting in the kegs of their slow-moving shells. Up through the punch-holes of Poseidon’s belt, out through the tunnels of his prosthetic manifold, svelte pipelines, immaculate taps – an invertebrate army comes to kiss the slit where my tail splits, two legs.
Ottawa poet, critic and dog walker Brecken Hancock’s first trade poetry collection, Broom Broom (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2014), explores the depth and darkness of death, loss and disappearance, as well as a history of plumbing, all while attempting to come to terms with her mother’s extended years of illness and recent death. Hancock strolls her poems through sing-song cadences and performs a wild linguistic gymnastics across both a comfortable domesticity and an unsettled history, and yet, this entire collection is unsettled, attempting repeatedly to discover and gain precise footing. As she said recently in her “Poets in Profile” interview over at Open Book: Ontario: “I’m invested in the tension between façade and confession, bravado and vulnerability. My poems are one way that I hold a mirror up to my bad parts, and I think poetry offers a potent means for exposing an internal landscape that’s not available narratively.” Compare the poem “BRECKEN” at the beginning of the collection to the poem “EVIL BRECKEN” towards the end (published recently at Hazlitt):
Booze tides me.
TV abides me.
My tits slung
I noose quiet
to lie with me.
My other husband’s
The sibling poems, situated at either end of the collection, show the ways in which Hancock explores and plays with the self, with unanswerable questions and uncertainties, and the mirror held up to the tensions she spoke of “between façade and confession, bravado and vulnerability[.]” Utilizing poems throughout that explore plumbing back to the Greeks, it allows her the distraction, perhaps, to write what is really the focus of the collection: the loss of her mother and the nature of the self through memory, and a rage both sharp and worn; a rage at times so fierce it can’t help but catch in the throat. As she writes in the poem “HUSHA”: “Some animals eat their young. / Animals sweet on their young.” Another poem, “WOMAN, WOLF,” ends with the direction: “Love, you’re the kind of cur / that gnaws the buttons off his coat / and drinks and drinks to blur the raw.” When it appears, the rage is sharp, directed and pointed, and comes with a remarkable clarity. The poem “THE CRIME FOR WHICH HE’S SERVING LIFE” includes: “This poem, his prom. I grew up with a boy // who grew into a murderer and I loved him. Love him // on the far side of the object of love, // the him beyond him. For words there are no // larger words.” One of the most striking pieces in the collection is the extended poem “THE ART OF PLUMBING” (an earlier version of which appeared as a chapbook through above/ground press), comprised of an accumulation of short prose poems progressing from 3300 BCE to 2014 CE. The history of plumbing, again, centres here, and allows Hancock to distract against what the focus might actually be. Two sections from different points of the piece read:
1348 CE: Forty-five percent of Europe’s population succumbs to the Black Death. Bathing, thought to transmit disease through the pores of the body, begins to decline as common practice. One hundred and fifty years later, Queen Isabella of Castile boasts at having bathed only twice in her lifetime: once at birth and once on her wedding day.
2014 CE: I need to soak. Gathering my split hair from the pillow, I rise from the television news, from the navalia proelia on our sheets. Grief isn’t an epoch; it’s a milieu. In the tub, Mom’s waiting, water slipping through the noose at its bottom. Tuberous teats in the faucet’s bulb. One damp hand fixed to the hot faucet; fingernails chewn, skin leavened at the quick. It’s not quick; the earth turns round on its spit.
In her essay “Forensic Confession,” composed as a companion to “ONCE MORE” (published in the new issue of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics), Hancock writes about the complications of “confession” against the emotional complications of attempting to reconcile her mother through her writing. She writes, “This poem isn’t making me feel better. It’s no time travel.” She writes:
Ah, my mother’s deathbed. Now we’ve come to the nub of my obsession, my compulsion to confess. For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been writing about my mother. Mom contracted front-temporal dementia when she was forty-three years old and I was eighteen. The timeline is rather muddy because she was misdiagnoses over and over again, the medical establishment considering her too young to test for dementia. […] By considering forensics in creating my own work, I’ve been able to think about rhyme, rhythm, metre, formal structure, word choice, image, and metaphor as reconstructive tools for piecing together the case of my mother’s death and my culpability. As I said, the timeline is muddy. I scour the trail, back and forth, attempting to see things from an objective, scientific perspective, looking for the clue that will click the pieces into place. I consider my mother’s decline and death again and again from different angles, like an investigator pinning disparate photographs and pieces of evidence to the wall. Taken together, poems form the picture of what I know: the crime scene. I try my mother in the role of perpetrator, then exonerate her as victim. See myself as prey; try myself as criminal.
Broom Broom is very much a book about Hancock’s mother, composed as the thread that can’t help but run through the entirety of its pages. Broom Broom is a powerful first poetry collection that exists as both an exploration of a dark history and subsequent grief, as well as an opening into a comprehension of what might remain, and a possible freedom from that same grief. Still, the book isn’t one burdened or weighed down with any such overwhelmingly serious tone; one can’t deny the playfulness of her writing, even through poems composed to cut down to the bone, such as:
LIFE’S A CYCLE OF HAIRSTYLES
Husband leaves me.
I swill another.
Sandy leaves me.
You only get one another.
Best friends’ babies
amass like cloud cover.
Why wasn’t Mommy
a better lover?
Over the space of some seventy pages, its as though the subject of her mother circles throughout Broom Broom, circling ever tighter as one moves past the first few pages, becoming featured in a poem such as “THE ART OF PLUMBING,” finally to emerge as the focus in the second last poem, “ONCE MORE.” Reminiscent of the prose of Susan Howe’s That This (2010) that wrote of the death of her husband, Hancock’s penultimate poem includes:
Mom would stand in her pyjamas and green, knee-length insulated coat, puffing without remembering how to inhale. Hair forcibly washed, stringy, scraggly, broomstraw. Face: wet-bread white. Disconnected from language, from subjectivity, she still ached for home. She forgot her name, forgot her pronoun: adopted the neuter ‘it.’
It asks my brother over and over to break it out:
‘Take it. Take it to where you have your life.’
Before the disease rendered it completely dumb, it was abusive. Exiling me from home, it forbade me from visiting and told me repeatedly that it hated me. It chased my dad with a knife and would sometimes turn on the car in the garage – make him watch while it knelt at the tailpipe, purposely sucking in exhaust.
2. Suzannah Showler, Failure to Thrive
NOTES ON INTEGRITY
What if we stopped predicting the weather
and agreed to run it ragged?
To demonstrate: a dramatization
of a pigeon being hit by a car, except in this
instance, the pigeon wins. Once a month
it’s moving day. Walking home, you’ll notice
everyone is having a night in their lives.
Most people are now experts on design.
I’m pretty sure this guy I know is faking
imposter syndrome. But don’t we all
just want to stand, mostly upright,
in a stick figure forest of contemporaries?
At the very least, I’d like to make a name
for myself in the lost art of skywriting.
I was going to say something crucial.
But I forget what.
Toronto poet Suzannah Showler’s [see my recent Open Book: Ontario profile on her here] highly-anticipated first trade poetry collection is Failure to Thrive (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2014), a collection of taut, polished and punchy lyrics. A finalist for the 2013 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada, Showler was included in The Walrus’ list of “the six best writers you’ve never heard of,” and, last spring, she released her first chapbook Sucks To Be You and other true taunts with Bardia Sinaee’s Odourless Press. Structured in five sections—Sensory Anchors, Museum Mouth, What You See Is What You Get, Some Crucial Element and Keen Frequencies—there is a precision to the poems in Failure to Thrive that one doesn’t often see in a first trade collection, and even her more conversational pieces are composed of cut and carved lines so tight that one could bounce a quarter off them. “Lowest was Jean’s preternatural warble, / spate of notes carrying a regatta of old-world curses / that strained, wood-stained, to reach us.” she writes, to open “THE WINDSOR ASYLUM” Her poems are culturally astute, highly aware of the margins and capable of intriguing cognitive twists, and establishing connections that didn’t previously exist. “The Great Wall of China / isn’t visible / from space.” she writes, in the poem “A SHORT HISTORY OF THE VISIBLE,” later writing:
Body scanners once used only in airports
become popular in bars.
This is what you see:
clothes haunting skin haunting
muscle haunting bone.
What you see is what you get.
When Showler opens the first poem in the sequence “SUCKS TO BE YOU AND OTHER TRUE TAUNTS” with “I have to say, strangers form great / cognitive maps.” it also opens a description of her writing as a whole, attempting to compose maps across a great range of source information to answer questions about how and why people act the way they do, and how and why the world, precisely, exists and acts the way it does. These are poems of experience and attention, as well as short essays on comprehension. And Showler is capable of deep attention, even within poems that might distract with her dark and quirky observations and humour. Her playful explorations are immediately clear simply through a list of poem titles, whether “PORTRAITS OF SEVERAL LAMPS BROKEN WHILE HOUSE-SITTING,” “CONFESSIONS FROM THE DRIVER OF THE GOOGLE STREET VIEW CAR,” “SOME FINAL EXPLANATORY THOUGHTS” and “A SHORT AND USEFUL GUIDE TO LIVING IN THE WORLD,” that ends with: “The trick is to try to live in Earth time / and keep the vigil of an orbit around anything. // Employ these and other strategies that prove useful. // Please write to me of your success.” These are poems far more interested in exploring the correct questions to ask, but ask they do, and demand at least some kind of response. One can’t help but respond.
Accidental deaths by location
Victims of aviation accidents or incidents
Accidental deaths from falls
Filmed accidental deaths
Firearm accident victims
Deaths by horse-riding accident
Hunting accident deaths
Industrial accident deaths
People who died in ATV accidents
Railroad accident victims
Space program fatalities
Deaths in sport
3. Sina Queyras, M x T
Dear Regret, my leaning this morning, my leather foot, want of stone, age old, my burnished and bruised, hair lingering, hand caked, spongy as November, my dear Relentless, my dear Aging, your voice tinny, dissonant as Stein shot through decades of war and Fortrel, cocktails on the hour, Zeppelins over Piccadilly, bombing blindly in the fog. Dear Skin, dear tobacco mouth. My refusal, my merely geographic, my fibrous strings for you: your abundant wit, your lack of shadow and still joy, joy, joy, nosing the air. Each moment stretches toward you, your dry feet: I carried them, pumiced and peppery, laid them where regret is a biscuit thing to lean upon and sweeten, my hour of you, my cursive thoughts, a pulpit beating under these ribs. (“Five Postcards from Jericho”)
Montreal poet, editor and critic Sina Queyras’ fifth trade poetry collection (and seventh trade work overall) is M x T (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2014), a work of meditative prose lyrics that pitch and weave, attempting to articulate and reconcile a deep grief and period of mourning. Short for “Memory times Time,” M x T is constructed less in poem-sections than in mechanically-described stages, with section titles such as “Alternating Mourning,” “Direct Mourning,” “Emotional Overload Sensor Circuit” and “Ohm’s Law of Grieving.” Through the use of such titles, and throughout the collection, Queyras plays with the collusion and confusion of exploring such emotionally-wrought subject matter through, at times, the emotional distance of scientific language, wrapped in a blend of coy wordplay, the lyric confessional, the non-fiction essay and highly articulate journal entries. Queyras writes of death and the dead, mourning some deeply intimate losses, as well as referencing others who themselves knew about grief, and the darkness where such emotions reside, including Sylvia Plath, Alice Notley, Anne Carson, Keats, Samuel Beckett, Jackson Pollack, Diane Arbus and Agnes Martin. “I have spent my life avoiding you, Emptiness,” she writes, in the poem “Over to You,” “and now I drink you and drink you.” In many ways, Queyras’ M x T is a book of restraint, showing the rage, frustration and grief that exists just underneath her lyric questioning. As she writes in the poem “Over to You”: “What is a woman’s art without pain? // What is a woman’s art without painting in blood, writing from the darkest recesses of her vagina? // I didn’t know what to say when the light shone in my eyes. // I admire you, Marina Abramović, but I am not glass.” The poems work to address perceived shortcomings, so as to overcome. In the same piece, earlier on:
There will be no one to write an elegy for me and so I am writing my own now, I want you to keep up with me. I want you to feel the way the wind holds a bird, or a balloon, the slightly different movement of feather versus plastics, smooth surfaces gliding, dodging, come lie under the red balloon with me, come trace the horizontal motion, there I so much sustenance in the viscosity of a balloon. The splash of a wave at Third Beach is hardly one splash, one wave, one movement, and each breath remembering. (“Over to You”)
M x T appears on the heels of poetry collections Slip (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2001), Teethmarks (Gibson BC: Nightwood, Editions, 2004), Lemon Hound (Coach House Books, 2006) and Expressway (Coach House, 2009), as well as a collection of critical prose, Unleashed (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010) and the novel Autobiography of Childhood (Coach House, 2011). Composed in meditative, lyric stretches, Queyras’ poems are more fragmented than the poem-essays of Susan Howe, and more conscious of lyric flow than the sentences of Lisa Robertson, yet the influence of both, if not direct, is obvious. At times, Queyras writes of writing instead of feeling, wishing for a language less aware of theory and far more visceral, as in the opening poem, “Water, Water Everywhere”:
I am not interested in what Bourdieu, or Kristeva, has to say about grief. I don’t want a grid, I want arms. I don’t want a theory; I want the poem inside me I want the poem to unfurl like a thousand monks chanting inside me. I want the poem to skewer me, to catapult me into the clouds I want to sink into the rhythm of your weeping, I want to say, My grief is turning and I have no way to remain still.
The irony is that her poems are rife with references to writing, writers and theory (some of which feel self-consciously included), included as touchstones to articulate those feelings, and managing to uncover some remarkable insights, such as the curiously-sly “All mature poets understand the need for dry wood chips.” from the poem “A Manual for Remembering.” Another: “If you can’t feel love in life you won’t feel it in death,” she writes, to open the poem “Sylvia Plath’s Elegy for Sylvia Plath,” allowing Plath a post-mortem clarity that might have saved her. M x T is a striking collection, pushing fiercely through the complicated mess of memory and grief, and fully aware that if one goes deep enough, grief might just not let go. Later in the poem “A Manual for Remembering,” she writes:
Don’t paint yourself into a corner. Ask yourself, What would Diane Arbus do?
4. Karen Solie, The Living Option: Selected Poems
Blue jay vocalizes a clash on the colour
wheel, tulip heads removed one by one
with a sand wedge. Something
in the frequency. Expectations are high
There’s a reason it’s called the nervous
system. Someone in bed at 11 a.m.
impersonates an empty house. The sharpener’s
dragged his cart from the shed, his bell
rings out from the 12th century
to a neighbourhood traumatizing
food with dull knives. A hammer claws
to the edge of a reno and peers over. Inching
up its pole, a tentative flag. And the source?
Oh spring, my heart is in my mouth.
A selected poems by Toronto poet Karen Solie would be news enough, but the UK-published The Living Option: Selected Poems (Northumberland UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2013) includes not only healthy selections from her three trade poetry collections—Short Haul Engine (London ON: Brick Books, 2001), Modern and Normal (Brick Books, 2005) and the Griffin Poetry Prize-winning Pigeon (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010)—but forty pages of previously uncollected work under the section title “The Living Option: New Poems,” allowing a generous one hundred and sixty page volume of her work. Given the length of time between her trade collections to date, it makes one wonder if this “previously uncollected” section might end up being the bulk of a future collection to appear in Canada, as opposed to being work that appears only in trade form in the current selected. The latter has certainly been known to happen, such as in the bulk of the “new” from Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley’s Sunfall: New and Selected Poems: 1980-1996 (Anansi, 1996), but I would suspect the former is a more likely outcome, given the fact that Bloodaxe titles don’t necessarily make their way into the Canadian market (unless, of course, Anansi decides to produce a Canadian edition of the book). Either way, there aren’t too many Canadian poets managing to get selected poems produced by British publishers: Gary Geddes had a selected poems co-published between Bloodaxe Books and Goose Lane Editions in 1996, his Active Trading: Selected Poems 1970-1995, and Toronto poet Priscila Uppal’s Successful Tragedies: Selected Poems 1998-2010 appeared with Bloodaxe in 2010. Other contemporary Canadian poets with British titles are few and far between, but also include Edmonton poet, editor and critic Douglas Barbour’s Fragmenting Body etc. produced by both NeWest Press and Salt Publishing in 2000, or even my own name , an errant (Stride, 2006).
Your News Hour Is Now Two Hours
Gratitude toward the houseplants, shame
for what they must endure. Of particular concern,
the azalea, flowering like the gestures and cries
of someone off the trail who sees a helicopter.
A long cold night is coming on.4
Is it dying or being killed?
When I’m 100 percent on what’s happening,
When I’m 100 percent on what’s happening,
there’s still that niggling five. Too much
water, neglect, information. Decisions
made at the executive level.
Science tells us plants emit signatures and responses
on yet another frequency we cannot hear.
That’s all we need. When little,
we were told our heads were in the clouds.
Now we suspect the opposite.
This is an impressive and impressively large collection of her work, and would provide not only an incredible introduction to her work as a whole, but an enticement of the new poems for anyone already familiar with her first three trade collections. Solie’s poems have long existed as even uncomfortably-sharp meditations on violence, bad luck, back and lost roads, love, desire and mistakes of perception, all presented with a remarkable clarity, even from the perspective of voices trapped in the midst of any or all of the above. What I’ve always appreciated is how precisely she locates her poems, providing a wealth of incredible detail in very few words, writing on Lake Erie, Lethbridge, the Kananaskis Valley, rural Saskatchewan, Victoria’s English Bay, suburban Toronto, highway travel on the 400-series out of Mississauga, Greyhound buses (“Medicine Hat Calgary One-Way”), and more than once on driving and car rental (even in the space of this collection). Any regular reader might notice that John Deere tractors, also, are discussed regularly in Karen Solie poems. Whenever she does place a poem so specifically, she does so with insight and the attention of a local, articulating not a postcard poem about any arbitrary geography, but composing a piece with a suggestion of intimate knowledge, especially of the darker elements of what it means to exist in that place. In the poem “Rental Car,” she writes: “Eastbound, westbound, exodus via / the 400-series highways. Personal reasons / I will not get into. The 427 Interchange / is a long note in space, a flightpath of materials / the grace of which is a reason to live.” Her poems attest to and articulate a restlessness and an ability, one might suspect, to remain still or static, or in the same place for too long, and often end up being short narrative pieces on experience, attention and consequence. “Anything / going has far to go.” she writes, near the end of the poem “Lift Up Your Eyes.” Or the poem “Sault Ste. Marie,” that includes: “Each day a new threshold / to break upon. The fires mean for now there’s work. The drugstore // clerk plans to stop in to the casino / for a couple of hours after shift and what so-and-so // goddamn doesn’t know won’t hurt him. She’s not talking to me / so I’m inclined to believe her. How difficult could it be // to stay here?”
5. bpNichol, bp : beginnings, ed. Stephen Cain
bp : beginnings collects bpNichol’s early major poetic sequences – including lyric, concrete, and sound – which have been out of print for more than 40 years. Alongside The Captain Poetry Poems (1971, reissued in 2011), the texts collected here now make available Nichol’s long poems leading up [to] the publication of the first two volumes of The Martyrology in 1972. Two parallel sequences to these publications, Monotones (1971) and Scraptures (1965-c. 1972), were eventually folded into The Martyrology Book(s) 7 & (1990), while the text of the sound poem Dada Lama (1968) has never been unavailable, and can currently be found in The Alphabet Game: a bpNichol reader (2007). The sequences collected here represent what Stephen Voyce has recently characterized as “two distinct paths” in Nichol’s early publications: “a lyric mode first anthologized in Raymond Souster’s New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (1966), which earned Nichol early praise among Canada’s literary elite, and the minimalist ‘typewriter concrete’ collected in Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer (1967), which aligned Nichol with an international consortium of avant-garde writers at home and abroad” (10). (Stephen Cain, “Introduction”)
Published in a lovely edition is bpNichol’s bp : beginnings (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2014), edited with an introduction by Stephen Cain. As Cain writes in the introduction, this collection focuses on a number of predominantly pre-The Martyrology publications by the late Toronto poet, fiction writer, critic, sound poet, performer, editor and publisher, all of which existed in small editions throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, with the occasional piece first appearing in the 1980s. Cain’s opening introduction is impressive, and nearly worth the price of admission alone (another impressive piece Cain wrote on bpNichol’s work involves the Toronto geography and landscapes of The Martyrology Book 5). For some time now, the difficulty, or at least the problem with discussing the works of bpNichol come from not only the massive volume of his output during his relatively-short life (1944-1988), but the incredible range—from concrete and visual poetry to novels to television work to self-published underground comics to lyric poems, among so many, many other works. For example: bpNichol bibliographer jwcurry once numbered the items in his ongoing “beepliography” as twenty-five thousand items “so far.” Still, so much of the critical conversation around Nichol’s work over the years has focused on the multiple-volume project, The Martyrology. The reasons for such are certainly understandable, given the nature and the scope of the project, called one of the most important Canadian long poems in the second half of the twentieth century, but The Martyrology, as many readers and admirers of Nichol know, is but a fragment of a much larger and longer writing and publishing practice.
this night the sea moves into me
no way of sailing over it
& so i must move thru it alone
& walk beyond my lies
but the words are on me hang heavy
& the voice cries to be heard
inside me all inside me
we can say the myths end
return full circle &
the actual untangles its confusions
the world is given its history
his story never changes
some journey is done
& the ear gathers the words near
to measure what one has won (“a letter in january,” “BEACH HEAD”)
Part of the reason for the exclusions come, one might suspect, simply come from availability. The fact that Coach House Press and later, Coach House Books, have kept volumes of The Martyrology in print is admirable and even incredible to think about, but so many other works simply haven’t had the same kinds of visibility. Thanks to Coach House Books and BookThug, as well as Talonbooks and Black Moss, some of that has been changing over the past few years. Over the past decade, Coach House has produced Zygal (1998), The Alphabet Game, eds. Darren Wershler and Lori Emerson (2007), Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer (2004) and a book of variations, ed. Stephen Voyce (collecting the trilogy love, zygal and art facts) (2013), and BookThug produced The Captain Poetry Poems Complete (2011), as well as another bpNichol work this spring, Nichol’s collaboration with Wayne Clifford, THESEUS: A Collaboration (2014). Not that long ago, Windsor’s Black Moss Press even produced a first edition of Nichol’s Organ Music (2012), and Talonbooks produced not one but two expanded editions of Nichol’s work: bpNichol Comics, ed. Carl Peters (2010) and Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bpNichol, ed. Roy Miki (2010). One would say that this is an enormous amount of work for even a living, active author, let alone for an author who died over twenty-five years ago.
woke up in the morning
nothing in my head
woke up this morning
wishing i was dead
there was no sun in the east
& all the stars had fled (“The Other Side of the Room”)
Part of the appeal of this collection is in the faithful reproduction of the original publications, allowing typescript and sketched works to be scanned as opposed to re-set or replicated in a less precise way, adding to the rough elements that would have been evident in the original publications. Although not all typescripts were produced in bp’s own hand, as the original edition of KON 66 & 67 was produced in such an uneven way, that when above/ground press came to reissue the small work in 2002, it was with a typescript re-done by “beepliographer” jwcurry, which is the version reproduced in this collection. What is also interesting about bp : beginnings is in just how many works within are well-known, yet possibly more known of than actually seen and read. Thanks to Cain and BookThug, readers and scholars might possibly, for the first time, really be able to dig into a period of Nichol’s work that hasn’t really been explored properly. Some of the works reprinted include pieces from (whether whole or in part): Cycles Etc. (Cleveland OH: 7 Flowers Press, 1965), New Wave Canada (ed. Raymond Souster. Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966), Journeying & the returns (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1967), Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer (London UK: Writers Forum, 1967), The Year of the Frog (Toronto ON: Ganglia, 1967), Ruth (Toronto ON: Fleye Press, 1967), Ballads of the Restless Are (Sacramento CA: Runcible Spoon, 1968; second “corrected” edition, Ottawa ON CURVD H&Z, 2006), KON 66 & 67 (Toronto: Ganglia, 1968; Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2002), Lament (Toronto: Ganglia, 1969), Beach Head (Sacramento: Runcible Spoon, 1970) and The Other Side of the Room (Toronto ON: Weed/flower, 1971). The collection of disparate pieces of bpNichol’s earlier works provides an interesting overview, or perhaps even a side-view, of his first decade or so of literary production. One might say this is where everything begins, before opening and even exploding outward into everything else he produced, some decades worth of material over the relatively brief time after he left his twenties. As Cain writes in his introduction:
Still, looking at the ten sequences collected here as a whole, they do appear to reveal the concerns of a young poet under the age of thirty. Recurrent themes include: the inability to communicate, the failure of language, depression and isolation, questions of the purpose of life and mortality, unfulfilled love, travel and exploration, and friendship.
6. Dennis Cooley, abecedarium
dear muse what’s the use
pretending we know where this is
going to end or why i am your out
landish & dashing figure in your o pera
& you yourself limbs akimbo O
lympic in movement limber
emotions thick & sloppy as soup
muddy alembic to your thoughts
your modus operandi shady as a water tower
why is it i should have to be playing opus
sum tell how i came to be your one
all yours all limbs (“dear muse”)
Winnipeg poet, editor and critic Dennis Cooley’s new poetry collection, abecedarium (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2014) is an expansive play of puns and train-of-thought sound play constructed through an exploration of a variety of subjects, including the history of the alphabet, references to the works of writers such as Robert Kroetsch, George Bowering and Andrew Suknaski, prairie histories, crows and what the ear hears, and poems that simply appear to propel narratively through and against the sounds of the words themselves. Throughout abecedarium his references are rich and varied, such as the poem “a long funny book,” that opens with a reference to Vancouver writer George Bowering’s novel A Short Sad Book (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1977), which itself played off Gertrude Stein’s A Long Gay Book (1933), as Cooley writes:
I’m thinking of calling
this a long poem.
I’m thinking of calling this
a long funny book.
Well it is.
It is when you compare it
to George’s. It’s not
a comic book
& it’s not a cosmic book
it is a funny book.
George’s was not.
You could tell
a short sad book.
I’m telling you George
& it isn’t
funny. Funny he sd
Cooley’s poetry collections over the years have each shaped themselves around a central idea or theme, from the play and punning around the physical landscape of the prairies, hearth and home of his correction line (Saskatoon SK: Thistledown, 2008) to his play around the histories of Manitoba outlaw John Krafchenko (a book heavily influenced originally by Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) in Bloody Jack (Turnstone Press, 1984; Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2002), to the exploration of his mother he did with Irene (Turnstone Press, 2000), and even to the Dracula-themed vampire poems of Seeing Red (Turnstone Press, 2003). The lineage of abecedarium appears to follow a particular trajectory directly back to his correction line, as Cooley wrote out geographic tracings, as well as historical and pre-historical tracings, furthering such in the stones (Turnstone Press, 2013), a book that opens a play on the word, the image and the idea of the stone, writing “the rocks scraped by wind and snow / and by later arrivals / rivals for space,” and composing a space entirely constructed out of the semi-permanence of stone. Writing his way down to basic elements, Cooley writes through the development of language and writing, various ancient histories, books and writers he has read and admired over the years and prairie landscapes, blending them together in an abecedarium that works to explore the very idea of communication: written, spoken and archival.
of a new line
made a new
make a new
now how does it act
up on you
does it leave you
breathless does it
bring you gasping
to the breathing hole
till death doth us part
& you you are pretty
broken up about it be
cause breaking up is hard
to do is it
not dear reader (“home thoughts”)
Over the past three decades or more, Cooley’s poetry books have increasingly appeared to be each composed and collected as a kind of expansive collage-work in the form of a trade collection of poems, writing the subject from as many angles and perspectives as possible, allowing the final result to be a collaboration between an exhaustive poetic research and polyphonic mishmash that refuses to hold any perspective as singular, staid or solid. And yet, it would appear that this book, more than many of the books he has produced, the word play and the explorations of sound might be the forefront of his purposes. This is Cooley at smart and serious joyful play, pure and simple, bringing the weight of years of reading, listening, research and knowledge to every motion.
7. Cecily Nicholson, From the Poplars
I have circled the same spot over and over
walls rise and fall to better walls
mortgaging future conditional
pledge of properties
reverse time lapsed
lots widen and fields un-furlough
seep marsh in, firs righted
cane recoils apparitional tangles
fluid congeals, opacity, a qualitative shift
In the form of the book-length long poem, Vancouver poet Cecily Nicholson documents a geographic space in her second trade poetry collection, From the Poplars (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2014). Nicholson writes Poplar Island, a small unpopulated island in the Fraser River in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver. The former home of the Qayqayt, a people devastated by smallpox in the late 19th century, Poplar Island eventually fell under the ownership of the British Columbia government, and much of the island subsequently became a massive shipyard. Unoccupied for some time now, the revived (and displaced/homeless) Qayqayt First Nation has been working to regain control of the island as their traditional space. As she writes: “history that no one / holds of interiors only imagined [.]”
pages damaged restored discoloured stained or detached wholly or partially obscured by errata slips and tissue, etc., are refilmed for the best possible quality of the image. the following diagrams illustrate the method
There has been a great deal of literary and critical work over the past few years dealing with native land claims and unceded territory all over Vancouver and throughout British Columbia, most recently around the 2010 G20 meetings and subsequent protests. For her part, Nicholson writes through and around Poplar Island, working from historical research, observation and an eye towards social justice, exploring what Dorothy Livesay famously called the “documentary poem,” providing a kind of poetic, historical and critical portrait of the island, its people and those who have impacted upon either or both. Her poem, quite literally, begins with documents on and about the space, exploring the genealogical traces of, as Jeff Derksen describes, “the history of use and ownership of a seemingly surplus space,” and provides an intricate collage of details, from lyric to historical correspondence to the cold fact of numbers. As she writes: “stand up now, the wasteland to maintain / your houses they pull down now / stand up now // your houses they pull down / to fright poor men in town // gentry must come down / and the poor shall wear the crown [.]” Hers is not simply an uncritical description or documentary but one that speaks to the removal of various native peoples from their land for the sake of shipyards, and a long poem that does more than simply replicating information, but using that information to help shape a series of collage movements in the form of the long poem.
Whereas, a petition has been presented by the Corporation of the City of New Westminster setting forth that the lands intended to be granted to the said Corporation by the “New Westminster City Lands Act, 1884,” are therein erroneously described, and that doubts have arisen whether the said Act is effectual to vest the said lands in the said Corporation in the manner contemplated by the said Act;
Vancouver and its surrounding area have long produced poets engaged with a blend of social justice and language experimentation, from recent collections by Mercedes Eng, Jeff Derksen, nikki reimer and Stephen Collis to prior works by a whole slew of writers including Michael Turner, Daphne Marlatt, Maxine Gadd, Reg Johanson, Marie AnnHarte Baker, Roy Miki, Roger Farr and Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, with much of this and similar kinds of engagements around the Kootenay School of Writers collective. In From the Poplars, Cecily Nicholson engages a space that might not be commonly known of outside of the immediate area of New Westminster, and questions the entire idea of ownership upon a physical space, or even a population, as she writes: “once harvest was done / harvest done worried some / worried men sing a worried song // songs common in the red humming / their whole lives prayer or persons likely to / become property spreading blacktop [.]” Or further on, where she writes:
prices will please the highest bidder. the purchaser shall be
and time shall be of the essence of the contract
when the cable snaps
8. Natalie Simpson, Thrum
Home is small bills. Packing 99 square feet.
Shale tight. Shale slid.
Eyelids by day.
And day all equations.
Equatorial new guinea, old soft shoe. Who bids?
Why not try sampling?
These days are harpy. (“Echo Localial”)
Calgary poet and lawyer Natalie Simpson’s remarkable second trade poetry collection is Thrum (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2014), following on the heels of her accrete or crumble (Vancouver BC: LineBooks, 2006). Her poems accumulate in quick rolls, composing line-fragments into a collage of meaning, linguistic purpose and rolling, luscious sound and spark. As she writes in the poem “Sentencing,” close to the beginning of the collection: “Wings would shudder. // Arisen single syncopate. / Single single syncopate.” There is an Olympic-sized twirl, twist and precision to her language, more nimble than the taut gymnastics by Toronto poet Marcus McCann, and more open to the possibilities of lyric and narrative flow than the works of Vancouver poet Dorothy Trujillo Lusk. The opening stanza of the poem “Vallarta,” towards the beginning of the third section, “Jack State,” suggests, possibly, a statement of purpose for her entire craft:
Terrible moments, these. Nothing to do
and must write. Pelicans swim the sea
and please. The land is a light and
falters. Flickers. False as old fortuna this
problem of poetry.
It is as though her poems are stripped of nearly everything except language itself, pointing off into an endless series of directions, all working to answer, as she suggests, “this problem of poetry.” Through the pulse and strum and boom of the rhythms that make up her Thrum, Simpson shows just what writing can make possible. As she writes in the second section, the poem/section “Echo Localial”: “Thrum sticks firm into firm place. Subordinate rhythm save reason. / Laid face to face.” Certainly, hers is a movement that doesn’t abandon meaning entirely (which arguably would be impossible, given the fact that her poems are still composed out of words placed side-by-side), but one that isn’t composed with any kind of straightforward meaning as its main purpose. She writes collage and sound, allowing the words to do, themselves, whatever they might, pinpointing her collage of sketch-poems point by point by point. Even before the book begins (according to the page numbers), she begins with this untitled fragment:
The poem trails the typing hand. The hand creases and clatters. The fingers jumble twitching. The poem defies corrosion. The hand defiles the poem. The poem clothes the hand.
9. Renée Sarojini Saklikar, children of air india
This is a work of the imagination.
This is a work of fiction, weaving fact in with the fiction,
merging subject-voice with object-voice, the “I” of the author,
submerged, poet-persona: N—
who loses her aunt and uncle in the bombing of an airplane: Air India Flight 182.
This is a sequence of elegies. This is an essay of fragments:
a child’s battered shoe, a widow’s lament—
This is a lament for children, dead, and dead again in representation. Released.
This is a series of transgressions: to name other people’s dead, to imagine them.
This is a dirge for the world. This is a tall tale. This is saga, for a nation.
This is about lies. This is about truth.
Another version of this introduction exists.
It has been redacted.
And so opens Vancouver poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s first poetry collection, children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Gibsons BC: Nighwood Editions, 2013), recent winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Association Award for Poetry. children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections is an investigative book-length study into the facts and fractures of what has been referred to as “Canada’s worst mass murder”—the bombing of Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985 that killed 329 people, including 82 children. Working from a vast archive, from newspaper reports to personal stories, Saklikar’s investigation through the material left behind and generated by such an event to create a rich and complex tapestry of grief, absence, rage, incomprehension, compassion and all the internal and external systems that surrounded the trajedy, including the “Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182,” which wasn’t released until 2010, and the subsequent trial and acquittal of the accused: “there is not reconciliation. There is plausible and implausible. / Catastrophic and unreasonable, / Eighty-two children under the age of thirteen. There is time-consuming and / inconvenient. / There is manual and reasonably balanced. There are costs.” (“from the archive, the weight—”). Throughout the collection, poems exist as examinations of what remains, composed as a sequence of autopsies, archaeological studies, explorations and regret at such a loss of human life and potential, reported to and by the narrator, described only as “N”:
Informant to N: in the after-time
My name is [redacted] and my mother was [redacted].
I was three months old when my mother died.
I am without memory of my mother. I am not familiar with this record of events.
June 23, 1985 and after.
I get older. I am her only child.
For such a weighty subject matter, Saklikar’s thoughtful questioning works through language as much as it does through subject, managing a playful display of sound and shape, allowing form and function to ebb and flow, strike and slice as required. Saklikar’s book-length investigation of such a tragic event through poetry is reminiscent of other recent titles by Vancouver poets, including Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2013) [see my review of such here], Cecily Nicholson’s From the Poplars (Talonbooks, 2014) [see my review of such here] and Mercedes Eng’s Mercenary English (Vancouver BC: CUE Books, 2013) [see my review of such here], each of which explore, engage and challenge a series of dark histories through various experimental poetic forms. As Saklikar writes in the poem “C-A-N-A-D-A: in the after-time, always, there is also the before…”: “each story-bit / a laceration / inside her deep down / secrets / dismembered / one limb after another— / incident as saga, saga as tragedy, / tragedy as occurrence / so what a plane explodes / so what people die, they die every day / in her body, blast and counter blast / (Air India Flight 182) / her story and the stories of other people / interact—a toxin?” Saklikar, who lost an aunt and uncle in the attack, responded in a recent interview conducted by Daniel Zomparelli for Lemonhound: “My hope for children of air india, which by the way comes to me only now, after the fact of writing it, is that readers/listeners will view it as a site of query, of contemplation: what does it mean to lose someone to murder, on both a micro-level, that is, on a personal level, but also within a macro-context, within a public event.”
Testimony: her name was [redacted]
She was seven years old.
Her mother said: she was full of life.
Her mother said: she was very pretty.
Her mother said: she loved to dance.
Her mother said: she loved music.
Her name was [redacted].
She was seven years old.
10. Nikki Reimer, Downverse
In Downverse, Calgary poet Nikki Reimer’s second trade poetry collection, she explores the immediate cultural language of Vancouver housing, subjectivity, dysfunction, displacement and social media, including hashtags, YouTube videos and online commentary, as well as the very nature and purpose of writing itself. The quote that opens the collection, credited to an “inebriated audience member at a poetry reading” reads: “I hated your poem. / Your poem was so boring.” Further on in the collection, one of the quotes that opens the section “that stays news” reads:
“only a poet would say that the reason non poets don’t like poetry is because they don’t understand it. and therein lies the real problem. it’s not the poetry that is disliked. it is the poets who deliver it in such a way that they think they are somehow better, fairer, superior creatures than the rest of us that turns the stomach. you wrote some words that may or may not rhyme. you memorized them. you said them in front of people. they clapped. or didn’t. good for you. now go cure cancer.”
The author of a small handful of works, including her first trade collection, [sic] (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2010), and two chapbooks—fist things first (Windsor ON: Wrinkle Press, 2009) and that stays news (Vancouver BC: Nomados Literary Publishers, 2011)—Reimer’s work has long been engaged with the social concerns of a number of other West Coast language poets connected (in even the most tangental ways) to the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver (a city she recently returned to Calgary from)—such as Stephen Collis, Kim Minkus, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jeff Derksen, Soma Feldmar, Cecily Nicholson and Peter Culley—and yet, the poems in Downverse display a distrust of those same systems of language, and how they retain and even create a distance between the author and reader. The poems in Downverse are centred in rage, boredom, grief, confusion and despair. Reimer displays a mistrust in the poem, while concurrently stretching the scope of what just might be possible. As the poem “television vs. the real” opens:
we watched Dr. Phil who told us to get a job!
& take responsibility for our marriages!
& create equal partnerships on an emotional, physical
& financial level!
the ultimate truth! … a phallus, I confess
we watched Tyra who told us to forget about money
& stop selling our souls to our jobs
Dionysus cannot ensure you
an accomplished sexual relationship
we watched Oprah who challenged the truthiness
of the memoir
what lengths men go to make Woman exist
11. Arleen Paré, Lake of Two Mountains
God and molecules, nuclei and neutrinos:
you’re told certain uncertain things.
Told this is your mother,
whose coffined face you don’t know,
whose dress is a dress she’d never have owned.
If you could, you’d live below theory, subatomic
notions floating unseen. Helixed webs,
beyond life’s unparseable range.
You’d believe in spiders, though they too
occupy their own theoried world.
On ceilings, unfalling, they attach, reattach,
rappelling. Their silks
unconcerned with what gravity can do.
Your mother sat you, as a baby, in the shallows,
the lake licking your spine.
Her face then was all you needed to know.
There’s a photograph. Part of the web.
Everything beginning that moment,
Victoria, British Columbia writer Arleen Paré’s third book and second trade poetry collection, Lake of Two Mountains (London ON: Brick Books, 2014) is composed as a portrait of a lake. Unlike other poetry collections on lakes, such as Michael Redhill’s magnificent Lake Nora Arms (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 1993), which was composed almost as a dream-portrait of a myth of a fictional lake, Paré’s Lake of Two Mountains explores the lake as a narrative portrait, very much engaged from a highly personal perspective, writing of family outings, gatherings and a variety of relatives, such as the poems “DAD IN THE LAKE” and “OLDER AUNT,” as well as portraits from childhood, amid the explorations into some of the historical threads that run through the region. Originally named lac des Médicis by Samuel de Champlain in 1612, Lake of Two Mountains, or Lac des Deux Montagnes, sits in Western Quebec, on the south-western tip of the Island of Montreal, and is where the St Lawrence River meets the Ottawa. The geography holds such histories as Samuel de Champlain, Brébeuf and the Oka Crisis, some of which Paré works to discuss in poems such as “OKA CRISIS,” that opens:
You saw the war start on your sister’s TV:
masks and camouflage gear. Before that,
you saw nothing at all.
Until you knew what it meant,
what could you know? High-school history,
blue textbook, Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant.
From a distance, five miles or more,
what can be seen?
The lake, a spreading brown water
coming to rest
before it reaches St. Lawrence’s olivine rush.
endless trade route, Old World and New.
Two mountains, seen only from the lake’s centre.
Wherever centre resides. Absent
from nautical maps, and unnamed.
Island cottages morph into mansions,
mushroom the land.
Islanders don’t return to the city when summer ends. Anymore.
When summer ends they book a cruise to Cancun.
This is a very physical collection, existing as a kind of family photo album from a summer cottage, perhaps, over anything overtly political or critical of some of the more difficult and complex histories that run rampant through the area. Honestly, one shouldn’t criticize a book for not being what it simply isn’t, but there are parts of me that wish for a book that was less one that engages from the perspective of the cottage-dweller, existing as a kind of outsider to a region that includes Oka, for example. While even bringing such up might feel entirely unfair, I can’t help but feel such, with the exception of the poem “OKA CRISIS,” writing: “No one knows how hate works. No one knows / why the Mohawk / don’t own the land.” That short example might be among the sharpest, and most pointed lines in the poem, as Paré paints a portrait of a pent-up explosion at the long end of some difficult Canadian history, much of which exists more as a description that the reader is left to interpret and consider, without the interference of narrator. The second page of the three-page piece includes:
The reservation is a settlement
plus several lots in the town. Owned
by the Feds, purchased
from centuries of history.
Sulpician priests, City Hall.
Unceded by Mohawks
who keep living there, who claim it,
time immemorial, claim the pines that secure the small hill,
claim their dead buried under the pines.
And the fish,
and the fishing huts that stud winter ice,
raccoons and foxes, firewood chopped
from the trees, the narrow main road,
the farms and the horses, the Mohawk Gas station,
eggs, cigarettes, neon lights, warrior flags,
Still, the collection is an intriguing series of portraits composed as a mix of the personal and the historical, moving easily between the lyric to the prose poem. Some of the most striking poems in the collection have to be the prose pieces, in which the personal “I” is reduced, and a far tighter and more focused portrait emerges, such as the seven “MONASTIC LIFE” poems that thread through the collection, the two “LAKE” poems or the five “FRÈRE GABRIEL’S LIFE” pieces. Somehow, these pieces, spread through the collection, are the poems that hold the entire book together, allowing for more personal poems interspersed throughout.
The lake harbours no greed. Rain comes, the lake simply receives. Rain comes in spring, and the ice, in plates and in discs, moves east, leaving crust and a thick, ragged skirt. Grit that falls through, trail of a fox falling in. Everything is poor. Rain comes, and wind. Wind like a cousin, not always kind. Wind-scrub and wind-wash, rough play and tease. Wind drags the lake’s floor, casts up what’s past dying. Swollen boards from fish huts, rented in winter, towed onto the ice, bird wings, broken at shore, rotten fish. The lake has nothing to ask, its ear cupped. Its hearing fills with nothing but rain. Water rises. Herons shrug in rock hollows, frogs wallow deeper in mud. Floods well. Lake opens up, gleaning, a chalice brimmed to the lip.
12. George Stanley, North of California St.
It’s pretty shitty
living in a Protestant city
& my heart too bleak for self-pity
I sit in the Cecil
surrounded by a passel
of loudmouth’d assholes
I swill beer
to still my fear
of the coming year
& there are mornings when I wake up
so riddled with psychic breakup
I can hardly hold on to my coffee cup.
I lived here three months
in a house where I never once
heard anyone say please or thanks.
Not the best indoor weather
for getting your head together
but it’s a personal matter. (from “Vancouver in April”)
“[A]ssembled from the contents of four earlier, out-of-print” poetry collections is Vancouver poet George Stanley’s impressive North of California St. (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 2014). Subtitled “Selected Poems 1975-1999,” the book is constructed from the bulk of four of his Canadian poetry titles: Opening Day (Oolichan Books, 1983), Temporary (Gorse-Tatlow, 1985), Gentle Northern Summer (New Star, 1995) and At Andy’s (New Star, 2000). For years, George Stanley has been known as one of a selection of arrivals into Canadian literature from the San Francisco Renaissance, as he, Stan Persky and Robin Blaser each headed north into Vancouver from a rich series of circles that included poets Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Joanne Kyger. It is well known that Stanley was a student of Jack Spicer, and it was through Spicer himself that Stanley’s first poetry collection, the chapbook The Love Root (San Francisco CA: White Rabbit, 1958), was published.
It seems clear that North of California St. works to articulate a period of Stanley’s work where his poetry really began to cohere, changed through his arrival north of the border and beginning to interact seriously with Canadian poetry and poets, including George Bowering, bpNichol, Fred Wah and Barry McKinnon. It is as though this is the first writing of Stanley’s to properly be situated in Canada; even as his poetic gaze occasionally shifted back to the city and country of his birth, it became more and more through the filter of Canadian influence. It is from this perspective that he begins to adapt his worlview, as he writes to open the poem “The Berlin Wall”: “Why, now that it’s breached, broken, does it cause / such consternation in me? // CBC brings me / the cries of happy youth, the singing, people / climbing up on the new meaningless Wall, / drinking champagne —[.]” Having been involved in poetry events via Warren Tallman in Vancouver for some time, Stanley moved first to Vancouver 1971, and the five hundred miles north in 1976 to Terrace, returning only to Vancouver some twenty further years later.
December. Coloured lights sketch
houses of family. Arms control descends
like a gift of Titans. Like little pre-Christian men
imagined thor, or Russian serfs
a good Tsar. Up where satellites crawl,
Star Wars lasers, power’d by earth’s rivers, may streak.
Today benevolence speaks, sublunary commanders
& we’ve never been so far from the stars,
that were our friends. (“Terrace ‘87”)
Stanley’s work has always seemed comfortable in that space between the past and the present, and between geographies, even as he articulates his immediate present, including his discomfort of being in the air or travelling on the Sky Bus, between the cities of San Francisco, Vancouver, Kitsilano and Terrace. In her lengthy introduction to the collection, poet and critic Sharon Thesen describes Stanley’s “Aboutism,” writing that “Since his move back to Vancouver in 1993 to take a job at Capilano College (later University), Stanley has more than half seriously promulgated the poetics of ‘Aboutism’, his rebuttal to the excesses of the ‘language-centred’ excesses of the poetic avant garde […] which concerns itself with its unfolding context: ideas, thoughts, locales, occasions, persons, and words.” She continues:
Aboutism and transportation are natural companions, one enabling the other throughout North of California St. Stanley’s first book is entitled Pony Express Riders; his next-to-last, Vancouver: A Poem, was written while riding the bus between North Vancouver and his home in Kitsilano, a journey that involves crossing Burrard Inlet on the Sea Bus. To get to and from Terrace, along with “CBC brass” and timber executives, Stanley would fly nervously on small planes, some of them bush planes. The “Mountains & Air” lyric sequence is an Aboutist text from the point of view of someone encountering a terra incognita. Stanley’s airplane poems are almost always about mortality and fatality. Flight is a subject that creates opportunities for fear of the loss of “plain reality,” of losing touch with the earth, which Stanley likens to “the truth.” The sense of loss, inspired by flight, of the world, the person, the real, and the familiar, is not a backward-glancing nostalgia for a “golden” past, which we know, or are told we know, is a fiction; but rather derives from a sensed absence or emptiness in the present. In an essay about the late James Liddy, an Irish contemporary of Stanley’s who taught poetry in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Stanley notes that Liddy’s poems (much like his own, I would say) “open outward into the world, thus allowing the incarnate (opposite of virtual) object to be subject.” As in Stanley’s own work in this volume, “the real refuses to submit to the schema, the length of time in the line. Images come faster than they can be accommodated; the charge is to grasp the moment in its flight.”
As Thesen describes in her introduction, “Not so much a career retrospective as a retrospective reading of these four books,” the current volume sets aside earlier works more in keeping with an earlier apprenticeship, including not just that first title, but his Tete Rouge / Pony Express Riders (White Rabbit Press, 1963), Flowers (White Rabbit Press, 1965), Beyond Love (San Francisco: Open Space, Dariel Press, 1968), You (Poems 1957 - 67) (New Star Books, 1974), The stick: Poems, 1969-73 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1974) and Joy Is the Mother of All Virtue (Prince George BC: Caledonia Writing Series, 1977), as well as a variety of single-poem broadsides, including The Rescue (San Francisco Arts Festival, 1964). The word “apprenticeship” might be apt, but inadvertently suggests a dismissal of an enormous amount of activity, far more than what the current volume acknowledges. Stanley himself articulates the difference between that much earlier work and some of the work presented in this new volume in his “12 or 20 questions” interview, posted October 25, 2011 at Dooney’s Café:
My first chapbook (The Love Root, White Rabbit 1958) was ephemeral. Just a few pages of mostly pretentious verse – i don’t even have a copy of it any more. It was the second chapbook (Tete Rouge/Pony Express Riders, White Rabbit 1963) and the third (Flowers, White Rabbit 1965) that immediately gave me a readership in San Francisco and beyond, and were a mark of my recognition as a poet by the older poets (Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan), as well as by Joe Dunn and Graham Mackintosh, the principals in White Rabbit Press.
My most recent work (“After Desire” [The Capilano Review 3.14] ) is intensely personal. This marks a shift from much of the poetry I had been writing over the previous three decades, where my aim was to understand the world — in particular, how capitalism works, first in Terrace BC (“Gentle Northern Summer”), where being so new to the community I could see it more objectively, with less distortion than familiarity would have brought. Later I wrote poems (“San Francisco’s Gone”) to understand the history of the city and of my family, especially my parents, who were both born there.
North of California St., then, might argue for as much as a difference in approach as a difference in perspective. In her introduction, Thesen argues for a lack of larger attention throughout Canadian literature for Stanley’s work, something that seems to have eluded him, despite the length, breadth and bulk of his publishing which, frustratingly, can even be argued as an offshoot of the fact that Stanley lives in the western part of Canada. In spring 2011, Vancouver’s The Capilano Review produced “The George Stanley Issue” [see my review of such here], which featured critical and creative appreciations by a list of Canadian and American writers alike, including Michael Barnholden, Ken Belford, George Bowering, Rob Budde, Steve Collis, Jen Currin, Beverly Dahlen, Lisa Jarnot, Reg Johanson, Kevin Killian, Joanne Kyger, Barry McKinnon, Jenny Penberthy, Stan Persky, Meredith Quartermain, Sharon Thesen and Michael Turner, as well as an interview with Stanley, and a small selection of previously-unpublished poems. Publications that have been produced since the period North of California St. covers include the chapbook Seniors (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2006), and trade collections Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) and After Desire (New Star, 2013), as well as the more than two hundred pages of A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000 (Jamestown RI: Qua, 2003), edited by Kevin Davies and Larry Fagin. This collection, too, was created out of a frustration for Stanley’s lack of attention, as the editors of that American selected open their introduction:
This book has emerged partly from a certain frustration experienced by its editors. The Canada—U.S. border, though long and notoriously undefended, is real. When George Stanley (then age thirty-seven, but so youthful-looking that he was often mistaken for a draft dodger) crossed it in 1971, he all but disappeared from American literary surveillance. Though he maintained contact with his friends in northern California, and though more than a few Americans collected his limited-edition books and photocopied manuscripts, Stanley’s work has been, in effect, excluded from the canon of “vanguard” American poetry, and from the odd process by which the poems of a small percentage of poets become accessible in the wider world of classrooms and far-flung literary scenes. Though Stanley’s recent volumes, issued by Vancouver’s excellent New Star Books, are distributed south of the aforementioned border, too often, in our discussions with American poets young and old, we found mention of Stanley’s work met with near-total ignorance. Stanley had been inexplicably omitted from Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960), and thus lacked the glamour of that association.
13. Nikki Sheppy, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite
purl + the accretion of sound instead of you = pearl
i was knitting—as befits my gender—when i
realized i could hear my mollusk spinelessly
entombing its parasite—strata of horny
deposition—until there shone
a bead that had forgotten everything but its own
voluptuous light—at stuh times
i construe a mysterious pain in the yarn—wince
and pull—dive and hook
Last year’s winner of the annual The John Lent Poetry Prose Award, as run by British Columbia publisher Kalamalka Press, was Calgary poet Nikki Sheppy, and the resulting letterpress poetry publication is now available as Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Vernon BC: Kalamalka Press, 2014). It is good to see more activity through Kalamalka Press, however seemingly random, over the past few years. The press originally gained attention in the 1990s through an annual poetry manuscript prize, but for book, not chapbook, publication (Karen Connolly’s first poetry collection, among others, was produced through such). That contest has long disappeared, but, now three years old, the third winner of The John Lent Poetry Prose Award was recently announced as Montreal writer Nicholas Papaxanthos, and his chapbook Wearing Your Pants will be published sometime in 2015.
WINDFALL is grrrrlhood. Bone of hair braided over and under the root system. That felled lock rocking its origin grew there without me. To go back is to fume quietly into the air, sound stolen by the gale-force spurred into lung. Of scent there is only chlorophyll (buds of a lost mitten, bathed organelles). It wakes like growth spurt. Bodes no futility, green verging on blue. I’m stippled with sense: voluble and inchoate. Not triste, no, but fire-breathing. Pit of the mouth scorched open, innards systemic with coal.
What strikes about Sheppy’s Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite is the brashness of her text, a daring series of forceful, bold and playful engagements with expectations of language, sound and the notion of “grrrrlhood,” portions of which are reminiscent of some of the electric lyrics of poets Emily Carr, Christine McNair, Brecken Hancock and Sandra Ridley. As Sheppy opens the first poem, “GRRRRL”: “(n.) a style of primitive ape, sub-adult and / female, in ringlets and pluck, about to slip / her tongue into you without first seeking / permission [.]” Sheppy also manages to play with the language and concepts of mathematics, making some of her titles impossible to replicate in a form such as this. Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite is a smart and powerful mix of lyric extraction, mathematical formulae, angry questioning and Riot Grrl bravado, wrapped up in a striking accumulative suite of poems. I would very much like to see more from Nikki Sheppy.
MUST WE FOREVER PONDER
why the #cagedbirdsings?
rattling a few bars like the whetted
cry of a #loon, sculling into the ear canal,
#wingingit through the tympanic membrane
while #chasingsometale—there it goes,
in a tempest of unintelligible caws
the mouth #spreadeagled
the body vacated
Beautifully designed and produced, Sheppy’s new title, according to the colophon was “hand-set in Monotype Bembo with Centaur for display, then proofed, corrected, printed, folded, collated and bound in ‘The Bunker,’ Okanagan College’s letterpress print shop, by students of the Diploma in Writing & Publihing, 2014.” The list of the “Bunker crew” is listed as well, making quite a nice touch, and includes Jason Dewinetz, who is also editor, publisher and printer of Greenboathouse Press, one of the finest literary letterpress publishers/printers in the country. Produced predominantly by students, unfortunately, also means the impossible occurs, and the work includes a separate sheet of (rather charming) “Errrata,” that reads: “IF PERFECTION OFFENDS THE GODS, there’s no fear that our efforts in the production of this book will get on their nerves. Despite our best intentions, quite a number of typographical errors found their way into these fine pages. Our apologies to the author and reader.”
14. nathan dueck, he’ll
I WAS RAISED INDOORS BY PARENTS ATTEMPTING TO SPARE ME from developing allergies or asthma. Mother indulged my bookish inclinations, borrowing a shelf’s worth of hymnals in noble German alongside sheaves of humble English novels. Father assigned me a related duty: I was to translate sheets of Hüag’dietsch and Enjelsch lines into Plaut’dietsch, our mother tongue, a plain-spoken parlance with the cadence, intonation, and tempo of the Canadian prairies. Such a learned chore was common in Mennonite – ooda Mennoniet – households like mine, for we were formally illiterate, in spite of our fluency with a particular Germanic vernacular, yet in the first half of the twentieth century a daughter normally assumed that responsibility. (“A NOTE ON THE TEXT”)
And so begins Calgary poet nathan dueck’s second trade poetry collection, he’ll (St. John’s NL: Pedlar Press, 2014), a wonderfully playful book of anxieties surrounding translation, culture, punctuation (such as this poem, included recently as part of the dusie “Tuesday poem” series) and language. Constructed in the collage structure of the Canadian long poem, he’ll explores the anxieties, histories and contradictions of his Mennonite self. As he writes: “By the time you read my admission it will / be posthumous. So long I have suffered sin- [.]” In many ways, dueck’s he’ll seems influenced in form by Dennis Cooley’s Bloody Jack (Turnstone Press, 1984), among others, for his playful use of language (including the pun), wild collage of lyric and characters, and array of disparate sections. In many ways, dueck is applying many of Cooley’s poetic and storytelling structures and exploratory techniques to his Mennonite past, much in the way (via far different forms) Myrna Kostash and Andrew Suknaski did in the 1970s and 80s for first generation Ukrainian Canadians. At some points in the book, dueck utilizes the visual/concrete, sometimes the staggered lyric fragment, and other times, the book reads as straight documentary. “I cannot create / a tradition.” he writes, in the poem “EULOGIUM”: “I can only invent a new testament.” There is a lot happening in he’ll, and dueck’s is a rich, wide and varied canvas. As part of the poem “PROEM” reads:
He will quietly homily, you know. Eli will.
keys of a manual typewriter
over an ad from page
656 of the 1979 Sears catalogue. Or a recipe on
page 13 of the Mennonite Treasury. Full stop –
Mechanical harmonics scale:
Tabs set →
No space bar.
Appearing a full decade after the publication of his king’s(mère) (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2004), which explored aspects of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s life, beliefs and death, dueck appears to favour the book-length exploration subjects through the essay-collage of experimental and avant-garde lyric, and manages to create something entirely thrilling and unique, pushing in directions rarely taken in poetry. How many other poetry collections might include a clearing or two of the throat?
He will post quires. Testaments or testimonies.
Ice age glaciers carved Pembina Escarpment from prairies to shield, from tree to medicine line.
Lost my place staring at headstone posture of a church minus its steeple. Rows made from felled birchbark with plastic kneelers of summerfallow fertilized by formaldehyde. When Rat River runs off, pews embalm churchgoers in Sunday clothes.
Tangled keystrokes. Loosened carriages. Dirtied segments.
15. Kate Hargreaves, Leak
Windsor splints me. Splints shins—feet bat-battering asphalt cracks thud thud thwack thwack thwack thwack shoelace plastic tip clipping concrete. thfooooo—exhale fast against damp armpit air. Pause one foot on pavement, other shoe rolling over ants and grass and woodchips two feet from dog shit sizzle in the haze. thhoooo—exhale re-tie loop over around and through, tie the ears together and tap toe towards sneaker end. Stand. Sweat slips between vertebrae, over spine juts like waterfall rocks—slish slide slim. On feet and level with horse heads over sparse hedge over-pruned by ninety-five degree weeks and days, nights of dry roots, brown branches, crisp. Rind warming in racer-back lines, heat-dying Friday afternoon onto shoulders arms and calves. Out and back: laterals around perambulator pushers and camera couples pausing to snap the elephant and her babies. thfoooooo—thfoooooooo—hard breaths in time with glitter on the wet streets calves and quads suck blood and O2 from head spinning and concrete clumps cling to clay soles. Windsor sticks to my sneakers, sod, cement, gum, cast-iron eggs and birds catch on my laces. thfooooooo—exhale, and scuff rubber on road, to scrape off stones, cedar chips, Tim Horton’s cups and spare change. Shin splints. Cable-knit air chokes my out-breath. thf—bronze base casts over my shoes. Drags me toward river railings and drills toes into sod. Headphones pumping dance dance dance till your dead at path-side. Playlist over. Riverside runner: artist unknown. Bronze, textile and sports tape. Splint into the soil.
Windsor, Ontario poet Kate Hargreaves’ first trade poetry collection, Leak (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2014), is striking for the sounds she generates, allowing the language to roll and toss and spin in a fantastic display of gymnastic aural play so strong one can’t help but hear the words leap off the page. Utilizing repetition, a variety of rhythms and homonyms, Hargreaves’ poems mine the relationship between language and the body, and rush and bounce like water through seven suite-sections: “Heap,” “Chew,” “Skim,” “Pore,” “Chip,” and “Peel.” As she writes to open the poem “HIP TO BE SQUARE”: “Her hips sink ships. Her hips just don’t swing. Her hips fit snugly in skinny jeans. Her calves won’t squeeze in. Her hips check.” She manages to make the clumsy, awkward and graceful tweaks and movements of the body into an entirely physical act of language, bouncing across the page as a rich sequence of gestures. Given the fact that she also published a collection of short fiction, Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels (Windsor ON: Black Moss Press, 2012), “a collection of prose vignettes inspired by women’s flat-track roller derby,” this writer and roller derby skater’s ability to articulate text in such an inspired and physical way shouldn’t be entirely unexpected, but the fact that it is done so well is something of a marvel.
She pores over her psychology textbook.
She pores over the late-night pita menu.
She pours water over tea steeps and pours.
She pore-reduces. She scours.
She pores over her blackheads in the mirror.
She skins her ankle with a dollar-store pink plastic razor.
She snacks at half-hour intervals throughout the day: trail-mix,
dried cranberries, arugula, celery.
She scans the fridge for leftover spinach.
She pours olive oil and vinegar on lima bean salad.
She pours oil on troubled waters.
She waters the daffodils.
She never rains.
She buzzes her head.
She counts. She sorts.
She: out of sorts.
She’s out on a limb.
She drips coffee on the floor.
She slips on wet tiles.
16. ryan fitzpatrick, Fortified Castles
Using this technique, two children can be
separated at birth without any emotions.
So why does the allegory survive while the
soulless creep still walks the streets?
Near the tops of the trees, you could nearly
make out with the ice crystals on the branches.
Some might object to a woman carrying a
mystery child, but we need the freezer space.
So she knew about the safe haven, but would
rather shoot herself right in the stomach.
Generally, we find it beneficial to the state
to allow individuals to disassemble themselves.
When I reach a finality near the ground, will I
lose some of the individual momentum I’ve gained?
Some print outlets might bury ice storms deep
on the weather page choosing a new forecast.
These are striking and radical portraits of shot
leaders defying a Jacobin sense of liberty.
During the past decade, Walmart has begun
to sell do-it-yourself exorcism kits.
Republicanism emerges as a nostalgic quest for
a return to the feudal times of purest liberty.
He was highly ethical in salvaging the tinkering
spirit of the wacky antics of embryonic cells.
Vancouver poet ryan fitzpatrick’s second trade collection, Fortified Castles (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2014), follows his Fake Math (Montreal QC: Snare Books, 2007) after a space of more than half a decade, and a move from Calgary to Vancouver. After his years involved in the poetics and literary community of Calgary, he’s been immersed in a new community of writers for some time now, and the shift of poetic comes through in this new collection. In Fortified Castles, fitzpatrick’s poetry has evolved into a blend of Calgary’s language-poetics and Vancouver’s social and political engagements, as he writes to open the poem “I Hope to See You Soon”: “I was a scapegoat for the government when all / I wanted was to wish you a safe trip. I greeted / my new friends with a smile. I broke something / here that can be fixed in another neighbourhood.” Through Fortified Castles, fitzpatrick utilizes a kind of collage/cut-up method of accumulation to engage elements of the Occupy Movement, confusion, social interactions, financial anxieties, political uncertainties, ambiguous sentences and an endless series of phrases, consequences and histories, managing to capture an enormous amount of activity in such compact spaces. As he writes to open the poem “Golden Parachutes”: “What is the maximum number of words that can / be spoken by a decapitated head on a pike?” Asked about his new work in an interview forthcoming on the Touch the Donkey blog, fitzpatrick writes:
My second book, Fortified Castles, came directly out of a couple one offs where I began to feed I-statements into Google (“I am so frightened” and “I fell asleep last night” were the first couple, I think), working with the search results. I liked the kind of material that came out so I stuck with it, playing with the shape of the poems themselves as I went. Working into a project from the ground up means that I work from a series of compositional problems or questions – questions that don’t emerge without the experimentation at the centre of doing something that doesn’t fit in a bigger project.
Structurally, its curious how fitzpatrick has composed two sections of poems composed in couplet form that bookend a lengthy section of poems structured in the form of sonnets, adding another layer of structural complication to a compositional process of stitching together Google search results. Part of what makes fitzpatrick’s poems so compelling is in the collage affect of his lines, forcing the full attention of the casual listener, and allowing the careful reader to experience multiple threads heading off in a variety of directions. As he writes to open the poem “I Want To Break Things”: “A closed door is music to me. My apartment is / in my name. I tense my face against the screen. / My backyard is my sanctuary. My dentist sends / me postcard reminders. I built this fence myself.” Given some of the subject matter the book explores, keeping the reader slightly off-balance might be entirely the point. Given some of the subject matter, it would seem strange to attempt to craft poems that didn’t unsettle. Perhaps we should be far more unsettled than we are.
I FAINT WHEN SURPRISED
The city is large and confusing and is the only
judge I have to answer to. The problem is with
my headphones and their immoral, bleached-out
hucksterism. I overnight hype on the spill I took.
*Have you read the YouTube comments? I hit my
head on the upper bunk and my muscles lock up.
It’s weird and sucks that I robbed you. I push
and pull at the hinges of the improvised door.
I wake to fading stars across my jaw. A question
mark follows my email subject line. It’s human
rights for everyone and there’s no difference. I mean
he wasn’t playing around. I crossed a threshold.
17. Lisa Robertson, Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2014) is a single, extended poem of accumulated sentences, each presented as stand-alone, with a coda to close this book of more than one hundred pages. Elsewhere, Robertson has described her compositional process as one of collecting, reassembling and collapsing sentences (including her own) together into extended, larger forms, and Cinema of the Present furthers what Robertson had previously done with shorter, individual poems and stretch them across a far larger canvas. This poem/book is immense, large and wise, and contains multitudes, as well as a potential dialogue (or, two-sided monologue) between the italicized and non-italicized lines:
It took you some time to discover the displacement.
Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form you kept playing.
It was a burning mortal agony, an insult.
A gate made of medium-density fibreboard, fiberglass, foam, balsa wood and copper.
It was a kind of dance music from the plains you hear at nighttime from far above.
You are fundamentally forgotten and veiled or you are deeply erased and diverted.
It was a place like the farm, but near the ocean.
You were poverty shivering in an old turquoise city.
It was a place of brutal mobility.
You need a hat against anger.
It was a place on a ruined map.
You send them back to their diminutive need to identify with everything they see.
It was a wide and empty Pacific place in too-strong light, with a general appearance of low-grade lack.
You are bitter gentian, gentian yellow.
Lisa Robertson is the author of a wealth of materials, including The Apothecary (Vancouver: Tsunami Editions, 1991), XEclogue (Vancouver: Tsunami Editions, 1993), Debbie: An Epic (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1997), The Weather (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001), Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Astoria: Clearcut Press, 2003), Rousseau’s Boat (Vancouver: Nomados, 2004), The Men (Toronto: BookThug, 2006), Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip (Coach House Books, 2009) and R’s Boat (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), and yet, it has been only through her last couple of books has she relied so heavily upon the individual sentence and its accumulations. I’ve been suggesting for some time that Robertson is very much a poet of sentences, allowing her poems to shape themselves through the accumulation of self-contained lines that bounce, collect and riff off each other into a complex series of cinematic experiences. Early on in the collection, she writes: “What’s natural, what’s social, what’s intuitive? // As for the serial description… // You now no longer use better words.” As her title suggests, her use of sentences here work to describe that space and state we refer to as “present” in a descriptively-rich form, one that suggests film, blending a mainstream sheen with a more experimental bent, all presented on a very large screen. Certainly: blink, and you might just overlook an important detail. What appeals about this single, extended piece is in knowing that one can enter anywhere and begin, although there is also something larger to be gained and understood by moving through the entirety from beginning to end (although not in the purely “narrative” sense). Cinema of the Present suggests narrative, characters (the coda, “Present: An Index,” by Pascal Payat, is subtitled “(looking for characters)”) and a variety of scenes and settings, and a dialogue that moves around everywhere and might even, in fact, go nowhere at all. If it is not the destination, one must pay strict attention to the journey.
18. Alex Leslie, The Things I Heard About You
The book that dreams all the names swollen green and black and yellow. Watermarks, birthmarks, names left out in the rainforest grow a new spore body, spine slipped by the pages that broke out. Popped a disc, the book staggers. No cellphone reception, the man in the store called Store heaves an eyebrow at my story. I open the phone book on the island where you now live. Open it, exhume pulp rot, head stuffed with wet leaves. An island where everybody knows each other’s name, your address it the place where the index is left to become microbe, become feast. Centres of pages mauled out, sections of letters (half the Ks, a few pages of Ps). After the cancer you decided you’d seen the worst. You decided to be positive and therefore become humourless. Moved to this place. Fell away. I turn the heavy edges. Where the names slope and wilt. My hands slow at the pages before your name. Qu Que—I’ve heard how different you are now, survivor, washed. I find your name, untouched by green, crossed out by a human hand.
Vancouver writer Alex Leslie’s first trade poetry collection, The Things I Heard About You (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2014), is a book constructed as a narrative exploration in precision, excision and the variation. Originally titled “I know how small a story can be,” the book is constructed out of a series of single paragraph prose poems, each with a subsequent ripple of two or three poems that follow utilizing the same language, but incredibly boiled down, including the occasional end-piece made up of a single, short sentence. Combined with a prior chapbook of microfictions, 20 Objects for the New World (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2011) and trade collection of short stories, People Who Disappear (Calgary AB: Freehand Books, 2012), Leslie gives the appearance of having an ongoing interest in utilizing condensed prose forms, and the poems in The Things I Heard About You seem to exist in a curious boundary between the prose poem and the short story. Each piece is thick with narrative, yet openly lyric, and incredibly dense. Given the explorations into multiple tellings, each denser than the last, there are echoes of the reworkings of Toronto poet Margaret Christakos, specifically in the reworkings-as-chorus-codas of her What Stirs (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008) [see my review of such here] that play the same language as the main piece to remark, boil down and further examine what has already occurred.
The names by watermark, by birthmark, rainforest book body popped, cell store. I open the story at cancer, exhume an island where everybody is index, where you left to maul wet loss. Therefore place fell away. I edge the wilt, slow at different cold. Left to this, I find you by hand.
What makes the poem-sequences, even poem-breakdowns, of The Things I Heard About You so intriguing is in how Leslie works to not boil down per se but to extract, creating new poems in the variations as much as continuations of each base piece. The strength, and the innovation, comes from that very variety, seeing just what is possible in the space within, and even between, each piece. The fnal poem in the four-poem “Pacific Phone Book” (the first two appear above) reads:
Dreamed you crossed and washed me.